Malheiros first came to the United States in the early '80s, fleeing the repressive policies of Brazilian's military government. As a teenager she was hired to compose songs for a feature film, and at the time all recordings had to be cleared by government censors; her songs came back from the capital of Brasilia marked up in red ink where the bureaucrats wanted her to make changes.
"It was the lyrics, and I was just expressing myself as any teenager would," Malheiros recalls. "I want to be free, I want to be able to say what I think, and I don't like what I see." It was very simple stuff, that maybe you guys take for granted, because you've always had that freedom here."
The climate was so bad that she ended up dropping out of a university music program after her favorite professor was fired for political reasons.
Last year Malheiros turned to Brazil to perform her original music for the first time. She found a very difficult country than the one she had left.
"They interviewed me on a program called "Without Censorship'- what and irony," she says with a laugh. "I come home 22 years later and I can actually say simple things. And when I played my music, the second time I sang my songs, the audience was singing with me. It was emotional."
Blame it on Rio
February 13, 2003
The San Francisco Examiner
Oppression at home fueled Malheiros
By Andrew Gilbert
A trip to Brazil might be a little extravagant for a Valentine's Day excursion, but the sights and sounds of Rio are as close as the Mission, where the wondrous vocalist Celia Malheiros performs Friday and Saturday at Brava Theater Center.
A force on the Bay Area music scene for two decades, Malheiros celebrates the release of her self-produced debut album, "Sempre Crescendo," with a weekend of her stunning original music. Marked by both breathtaking improvisation and sumptuously produced arrangements, the album was recorded over six months in Rio, and features a cast of more than 50 musicians, including the legendary Brazilian composer and multi-intrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal.
For her Brava performances, Malheiros has assembled a thrilling Brazilian band with pianist Weber Iago, guitarist Carlos Oliveira and master drummer Gamo Da Paz. While the concert is the main event, the show also features the Ginga Brazil Dancers, directed by Conceicoa Damasceno, and a post-performance party with a DJ, Brazilian appetizers and a cash bar.
Far more than a singer-song writer, Malheiros plays guitar, cavaco (four-string ukele-like instrument), moringa (gourd) and cajon (percussion box).
"I also play piano, clarinet and many other things, but it seems like the older I get, the more I just want to play percussion and sing, because that's how I feel the connection to the music," she days from her home in Pacifica.
"You have a rhythm and a melody going, and that's where you really start. Harmony is way after that, it's a thought-out idea, and very much mathimatical."
Since settling in the Bay Area two decades ago, Malheiros has sought to bring the music and culture of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro, to Baghdad by the Bay.
At first she competed and performed in the street carnaval, winning awards with her samba compositions. Before long she became the music director of San Francisco's annual Carnaval Ball, the largest indoor carnaval event on the West Coast.
She founded the Brazilian All Star band, a 25 piece ensemble that featured stars like Walter Wanderley and Elza Soares. With her own band, Brazil Ja, and the group Batucaje, she shared stages with giants like Ray Charles, João Bosco and Santana.
Finding her rhythm
But her own songs were caught in a tricky paradox. The popularity of Brazilian music meant she always could find work, where playing samba at carnaval or the bossa novas of Antonio Carlos Jobim; creating space to play original music was a tremendous challenge, however.
In 1998 she decided to leave the Carnaval Ball to focus on documenting the music she had been conceiving since she was little.
"My music was always there - I'm always composing, since I was 8 years old - but it stayed in the drawer," Malheiros says. "I'd write a lot and leave it at home. I felt maybe people want to hear what they know."
"At one point I said, 'enough! I've got to play my music.' After 13 years I quit doing the San Francisco Carnaval. I love to play the classics by Jobim, and I do, but now the focus is on my music."
The decision to record most of "Sempre Crescendo" in Rio makes perfect sense, as Malheiros sought out the finest players to capture the sound she'd been honing for years. Most impressive is the presence of Pascoal, who performs on melodica with his band on the irresistibly syncopated "Fremeto," and at the piano for an extended spontaneous duo improvisation with Malheiros that ended up as the album's title track.
That Pascoal is Malheiros' creative patron saint is a mark of her expansive musical vision. Even in the fervid hothouse of Brazilian music, Pascoal stands out as a particularly flamboyant bloom.
The madcap composer and multi-instrumentalist has cultivated a dazzlingly complex musical universe that draws on Brazilian styles like frevo and samba, xaxado and choro, with elements of jazz, rock and new music, too. With his translucent albino skin and flowing white hair, he is a wild figure known for playing unlikely implements as rhythm instruments and incorporating live animals into his performances.
In the United States Pascoal is still best known for his brief stint with Miles Davis in the late '60s and '70s.
Malheiros has been an ardent fan of Pascoal since she was a teenager. But it was only years after she moved to California that she got to know him.
"I saw all his concerts, including the ones he'd bring the pigs and chickens," Malheiros says. "I always knew he was a genius. Every time he came to the Bay Area I went backstage and talked to him."